A proposal from France and Great Britain to supply weapons to Syrian rebels has split the European Union. If Paris and London go it alone, it could ruin the bloc's chances of creating a unified foreign policy.
This Friday (15.03.2013) marked the two-year anniversary of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In response to the Syrian conflict, European Union member states imposed sanctions, supported diplomatic solutions, pledged aid to refugees and participated in other humanitarian work.
But all that's proving to not be enough, with France and Great Britain declaring that they are losing patience. French President Francois Hollande at the EU leaders' conference Thursday called for an end to the arms embargo against Syria so European countries could provide weapons to the Syrian rebels.
Hollande justified the need to change policy course, "Because this drama has been going on for two years and the number of victims is growing every day. Despite the efforts of envoy Lakhdar Bahimi in the past months no political solution has been found."
Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron argued that the arms embargo was working in favor of Assad's regime as Russia and Iran continue to supply government forces with arms used against the rebels.
Weapons in wrong hands?
The issue was not on any of the official summit agendas, but the demands made jointly by France and the UK dominated the summit's second day. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann candidly expressed his opposition to the lifting the ban.
"I do not think you can solve a conflict that you are supplying weapons to," he said. "It usually just means that someone else delivers more weapons to the other side."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was a bit more reserved, although she has been a staunch critic of arming the Syrian opposition. Merkel said she had "a number of concerns about exporting weapons to the opposition because you have to ask if you are just fueling the conflict." Many have also said they fear the weapons could end up in the hands of extremists.
Merkel, however, is willing to discuss the issue, and Paris and London have said they do not anticipate immediately sending arms to Syrian rebels. Instead, EU foreign ministers will discuss the topic again when they meet next week in Dublin.
Diverging foreign policy
Many observers have expressed frustration over the solo-effort mentality behind the French-British plan. Both France and the UK have emphasized their sovereignty regardless of whether or not the EU establishes a unified policy.
Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen said he was disappointed by the two countries' scheme. "We have tried to build up a common foreign and security policy and I hope that we could strengthen it by having a common policy on Syria," Katainen said.
'Double standard' with Russia
Is the EU taking a stiff enough line against Russia?
Relations with Russia were another topic of discussion on Friday. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite sees a split in Europe when it comes to dealing with Russia, a key supplier of weapons to the Syrian regime. Grybauskaite criticized Russia's human rights policy, adding that the EU held large, strategically important countries like Russia to a different standard than other, smaller nations.
"We allow Russia to do a lot of things which we do not accept," she said. "We need to not compromise our positions and attitudes and not make exceptions for any large countries, like Russia, for example."
Additional confrontations also occurred on the issue of the EU's upcoming budget - the seven-year financial framework. For the first time in the history of the 27-member bloc, the European Parliament has to approve the budget, and it rejected the budget that national leaders agreed to after long negotiations.
Cameron, who has been among the strongest supports for cutting the EU's budget, expressed satisfaction over potential cuts. "We cut the limit of the EU credit card and that limit is going to say cut," he said. "Of course, the Parliament will have points it wants to make … but the ceiling is the ceiling."
European parliamentarians, however, have shown themselves to be prepared for a budgetary showdown.
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